Who Should the Church Look Like?

MR Staff
Friday, May 1st 2015
May/Jun 2015

Cole Brown says he was surprised by all of the discouraging advice he received as he was preparing to start a multiethnic church in inner-city Portland, Oregon. In 2006, the now 33-year-old pastor was planting what he described as a charismatic Reformed church, connected to the Acts 29 Network. Dozens of people told him it was "absolutely impossible" to plant an ethnically diverse church, and they advised against it. Instead, he was told to "pick a target group; aim for them. That's how you'll build the kingdom." But he says, "I just couldn't, in good conscience, do that."

Almost nine years later, Brown continues to pastor Emmaus Church, which is now a congregation of 120 people. Half the church is African American, 40 percent are Caucasian, 8 percent Latino, and 2 percent Asian. Brown says his discouraging advisors have been proven wrong. But he acknowledges it's been a tough road: "Very difficult. Very slow growth. Very magnificent."

Emmaus Church is part of a national trend. According to recent research, the number of evangelical churches considered ethnically diverse has grown by 250 percent in the past fourteen years. One of the nation's leading religious demographers, Michael Emerson, called this "a pretty astounding change," given that in 1998 evangelicals were the least likely to be racially integrated among the religious groups examined.

In 2012, Duke University's National Congregations Study found that 13 percent of evangelical congregations were considered diverse’dramatically up from just 5 percent in 1998. Sociologists consider a church diverse if at least 20 percent of the congregation is of a different ethnic background than the majority of the congregation. Emerson explained: "That's the tipping point where [racial groups] go from being tokens to actually having a collective voice that can change the organization."

The change in evangelical churches is particularly impressive when compared to mainline Protestant churches measured during the same period. In 1998, about 5 percent of both evangelical and mainline congregations were diverse. By 2012, unlike evangelical churches, mainline churches remained unchanged. Though mainline denominations have put a lot of emphasis on diversity and tolerance, this doesn't seem to have translated into racially mixed churches. Emerson says that's because "'high church worship style does not seem to attract great diversity." In addition, he observed that "the most straightforward way to have interracial congregations is to begin new churches that are diverse from the start"’and, he pointed out, the mainline is generally not planting churches.

Brown, who is Caucasian, says his marriage to an African-American woman helped him see the desperate need for evangelical churches to become diverse. Early in their marriage, they attended an all-black church and an all-white church for a few years each, and they were frustrated by both. "From the church leadership on down," Brown recalled, "what both churches unintentionally communicated was: 'We want you here, but you need to become like us to fit in.'" He says this was especially problematic when they wanted to invite others to church.

Brown recalled one embarrassing incident when he invited some African-American friends to his predominantly white church. The pastor was preaching on Acts 17, "and somehow he made the whole sermon into a political sermon and referred to Democrats throughout the sermon, with all seriousness, as 'demon crap.' Our friends were just appalled and couldn't believe it, because in their community most of the Christians are Democrats."

But it was just as awkward when they invited their white friends to an African-American church, as the lengthy and active worship services threw off some of his friends. "Instead of a ninety-minute church service, you have literally a four- or five-hour church service. And instead of sitting and listening to a sermon, you're seeing people literally run around in circles and people jumping up and jumping down and people shouting." And yet there was no attempt to explain what was going on or to make outsiders feel welcome. "There were all sorts of people in these neighborhoods who just weren't represented in the churches we were attending, and the churches seemed to be okay with that. We were not."

Emerson says that not long ago, most evangelicals were satisfied with churches dominated by a single ethnicity. In seminary, pastors were taught to focus on growing homogeneous churches targeting specific people groups, or niches. This was, in essence, planting churches by capitalizing on the natural human desire to be around your own kind. He says that denominations were buying into this concept at the highest levels, and church planting pastors were questioned about which people group they were targeting: "One pastor said, 'I put down "human," and they said then you cannot start a congregation because you have to know what people group you are trying to reach.'" For Emerson, however, this thinking has "essentially gone away" in recent years. Increasingly, across evangelicalism, it's now in vogue to seek racial diversity.

In a 2013 survey, Lifeway Research found that 91 percent of pastors and 73 percent of Americans agreed that churches should reflect the racial diversity of their community. Emerson says that the most recent research shows that this desire is slowly being realized in a growing number of churches.

One of the key reasons Brown decided to plant Emmaus Church was so he and his wife would have somewhere they could worship in good conscience and community: "We wanted to see our friends able to worship under the same roof, and we wanted to see our neighbors able to worship in the same body." This is not merely a personal preference. He believes that ethnically diverse churches can be a powerful, visual demonstration of the gospel. "Something's going on here. There are people who are not like each other who are voluntarily sharing their life together. I think that glorifies Jesus and fulfills his prayer in John 17 that we would be united."

In the 1990s, a growing number of churches and parachurch organizations started to become ashamed by the homogeneous makeup of so many congregations, according to sociologist Gerardo Marti of Davidson College in North Carolina. They became convinced that the Christian faith held out ethnic diversity, reaching people from every tribe tongue and nation, as the standard: "There are people who really believe that the church has missed the boat. And once Christians started to believe that discrimination and prejudice could be at the root of their congregations, they began to really panic." He says that to the credit of many churches, they attempted to become diverse voluntarily, while many workplaces and social institutions were required by law to pursue affirmative action.

Marti says that churches and other voluntary organizations don't naturally become diverse. "All research generally reveals a radical level of homogeneity in our voluntary networks. We tend to marry people like us. We tend to have friends who are like us." Breaking out of that framework requires a tremendous amount of work, which can seem counterintuitive to many evangelicals. "Churches want to say that if we preach the gospel and we love all people we'll become diverse," but he says research doesn't seem to bear that out.

Brown and his congregation have had to be very intentional in their efforts to build a multiethnic church: "We can't just preach the gospel and assume racial reconciliation will happen." He believes the gospel "does have the power to accomplish it [racial reconciliation] and that is one of the implications of it. But we [pastors] have the responsibility to draw that out."

Diversity can be risky and difficult. In fact, Mark Mulder, a sociologist at Calvin College, says there's a cost to pursuing racial diversity in churches: "A lot of times churches want to do this but they don't want to pay the cost." There's a genuine risk that if churches pursue diversity, then the "people who've been there for a long time don't go anymore. If we change the way we're doing something, somebody's going to lose something in the process. If a smaller church does it, and it doesn't go well, the whole thing could fold." Congregations need to examine what they do and why they do it, and they may have to root out cultural practices and traditions that form unnecessary barriers for others. "That is the key question. How do you tease out what is essential; what is the stuff that we can't let go of? That is crucial. And what is just part of the Dutch ethnicity or part of the culture that we can just let go of? And I think that's the key conversation."

Brown and his church are well aware of the risks, challenges, and costs of becoming ethnically diverse. Everyone has to be willing to make compromises. "The style of music isn't what you would have chosen and the style of preaching isn't what you would have chosen," and for that reason it can be tempting to go elsewhere.

Brown has found that being in community with people from various different backgrounds can be risky and painful. He says that Caucasian members of his church have worried about being perceived as racist or accidentally offending someone. They say, "I don't normally have to get this intimate contact with people who are not like me. How is this going to go? Is it going to come back to hurt me?" Likewise, African-American or Latino people in Brown's congregation may entertain doubts and questions of their own: "Do these white people really love me? Do they want what's best for me? Are they going to actually listen to my voice, or are they going to push their voice on me like so many have in the past?" Brown says it hasn't always been easy to persuade others that these challenges are worth facing, "because it is a big cost that most churches don't require you to pay. But it is well worth the cost."

Emerson spent a decade studying diverse congregations, looking for what they had in common, which may have contributed to their success. He says that in most cases the drive for diversity had to come from the top, from the leadership of the congregation. It must be "a leader who truly believes this is what the congregation should be, that this is part of our mission as Christians."

Brown goes even further. He believes that churches should make every effort to have ethnic diversity in the leadership of the church: "To have an all-white leadership team and say 'We want to have a multiethnic church' is disingenuous, because you're just asking people of color to continue submitting to white men leading the white way." In his research, Emerson came to a similar conclusion. He found that churches with ethnic diversity in their leadership were more likely to sustain diversity over the long term. In addition, he discovered that churches that had become diverse had adopted mission statements defining the church, in part, as multiracial or multiethnic. His research showed that it was even more effective if that message was incorporated into the weekly bulletin: "Unbelievably, just putting it on your bulletin, you start diversifying right then and there." Small acts seem to send powerful messages to visitors: "'Wow. They're saying I belong here.'… And with some people that's enough for them to stay." Emerson also found that churches with ethnic diversity in their leadership were more likely to sustain diversity over the long term.

Marti cautions that in the rush to have churches reflect the racial character of their neighborhoods, there's a danger of "tokenism." He says some churches "attempt to maneuver bodies for the sake of color and do it in ways that violate people, because obviously they're being treated for their value to esthetically create an ambiance of diversity, rather than actually being valued for who they are." An excessive focus on race can result in the congregation focusing on difference rather than the many things they have in common. He says that churches that are successful and building long-term racially integrated churches have members who have built relationships with others around common interests, such as their careers or the arts.

Marti's research has shown that success in ethnic diversity begins outside of the church: "Churches can't become diverse really until individuals in the church have their own diverse relationships. It's really about the relational connections that people have, not so much the racially mixed community that you build at church."

Mulder is reluctant to suggest specific steps that churches can take toward diversity: "I think there are a lot of pastors out there who would love to have a ten-step formula for doing it, and it just doesn't exist because it is so context specific. What works in Los Angeles isn't going to work in Grand Rapids necessarily." He says the number of variables is mind-boggling’from the size and ethnic makeup of a neighborhood, to the theological and cultural traditions in a church and denomination. "It's a messy process and you have to be willing to lose things, and you have to be willing to start the process with a good dose of humility, trying to figure it out as you go."

For Brown, pastoring a multiracial church has clearly shown him his own limitations and how much he has to learn. "No matter how much I want to pastor a diverse church, no matter how badly I want to reach the Black, Latino, Asian population in my neighborhood, I'm a white man and that affects how I see the world and it affects how I do church." After almost nine years of living and working in a multiracial church, Brown says he's more convinced than ever that this is how the church should look. He says his experience has allowed him to know God in a way that he might not have: "You're seeing aspects of God's image that you would not otherwise see on display."

Friday, May 1st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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